Sun Market brings groceries and unusual items to Whittier

Months after the Whittier neighborhood lost one of its last bodegas, Andrea Leo opened Solar market at 2201 North Lafayette Street to fill the gap left. Leo worked in hospitality for 18 years, behind the bar at Gin Mill and Park Tavern when it was lukewarm. Recently, she has been in real estate, but while she was in quarantine in 2020, she found out wishing there was a place nearby to grab the essentials. Although the area is not technically a food desert, residents like Leo have a way to go to visit a traditional grocery store like Safeway and Sprouts, which is just over a mile from Whittier town center.

There used to be several options. In the last decade, at least three local bodegas have closed in the Whittier neighborhood, and a major grocery store called the Downing Super recently closed. There’s a small market left, Gem Food Mart, on the outskirts of the neighborhood on East 30th Avenue and Downing Street.

Old Scott’s Market on East 31st Avenue and Williams Street was open in the 90s and 2010s; the built-up building still has its sign, though it is half missing. Both Ben’s Supermarket on East 28th Avenue and York Street and Lincoln Market on East 25th Avenue and Gilpin Street recently closed. The former Ben’s is likely to become a local bar; a company called Ephemeral Rotating Tap applied for permission for the room, which has been under renovation. While a salon is to open in the small space between Whittier Cafe and the former Lincoln Market location is still available for rent, says John Livaditis, president of AXIO Commercial Real Estate, which owns the building.

Although he would like to see another market open at the address, he says it has been difficult to find interested people despite having spoken to Choice Market as well as Marczyk Fine Foods and Spinelli’s Market , of which the latter two have operated specialized markets in Denver neighborhoods since the 1990s.

One of Spinellis’ current co-owners, John Moutzouris, told Livaditis that it’s probably markets that are not interested in space because that type of business has many obstacles. “It’s a big challenge,” says Livaditis, noting that it’s hard to make enough money to compete with grocery stores, even though there are none in the immediate area. “I would love to have a market in there in any shape or form,” he says, but the space is more likely to become a restaurant.

Leo received similar advice from Spinelli’s co-owner Pete Moutzouris as well as the original founder, Jerry Spinelli, who owned the market with his wife Mary Ellen for two decades. But despite the warning, Leo persisted and opened the Sun Market quietly in July, named after the amount of sun the south-facing storefront receives. “I was not thinking about the profit margin,” Leo says. “It just felt right. I still believe it’s okay.”

click to enlarge Sun Market carries fun, unexpected items like Japanese soda along with essentials.  - KRISTIN PAZULSKI

Sun Market carries fun, unexpected items like Japanese soda along with essentials.

Kristin Pazulski

Sun Market, which Leo describes as a cross between a bodega and a high-end market, carries both staples and the unexpected-on purpose. On the shelves are French Mustard and Heinz Ketchup, Advil and Band-Aids and Dial Soap and Deodorant. But there is also marzipan, brought in specifically for a neighbor who is a baker. Near the box are Strawberry and Macha Pocky and small bags of Fritos. In the fridge, next to Coca-Cola glass bottles, you’ll find Ramune, a Japanese soft drink that opens with a marble shot. “I have this because the kids love it,” Leo notes.

Brown bread in a can sits on the shelf because she was curious to try it (she says it is well grilled with butter). There is gluten-free organic edamame pasta on the same shelf as 99 cent bags of traditional dry pasta. An entire shelf of Asian sauces and spices along with specialties like jackfruit in brine is inspired by Leo’s love of cooking. There are refrigerators with cold dairy products, meat and a selection of products. So far, products have been the most difficult items to carry, Leo says.

The shelves appear a little sparse, but it is also intentional. When she meets and talks to neighbors, she orders items they are specifically looking for. She plans to continue filling the shelves and has room to expand. Leo recently added a freezer and gets fresh bread every Friday. “This store will fill up,” she explains. “If a neighbor asks, I’ll say yes, I have.”

There is also a department with locally made gifts, some children’s toys and books, wrapping paper, cheap greeting cards and kitchen utensils.

A few weeks after opening, Leo added an outdoor table and chairs to the patio, which she hopes to use for small community gatherings like pop-up markets or the occasional food cart. She also hopes to turn the back room, currently used as an office and space for her children to play, into a delicatessen.

While the market business can be tough, Leo, with his bright smile and sunny yellow apron, looks on the sunnier side of the street.

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